Project cultivating community and ecological harmony through permaculture

Everyone knows what a garden is, but few could define a food forest.

Part harvest stand and part renewable landscape, it’s an ambitious solution to a growing problem: food insecurity.

Food forests are modelled after woodland ecosystems. They’re designed to be sustainable and regenerative, with seven or more layers of vegetation that are mostly perennial. This series of plant communities is organized into “guilds,” comprising a large span of mutually beneficial relationships.

Currants, gooseberries, goji berries and Turkish rocket are but a few of the offerings at the Scotsburn Community Food Forest, now heading into Year 5. Apples, pears, plums, hazelnuts and walnuts are also in the works.

“Eventually, you’re going to have designed it so that there’s so many symbiotic relationships happening in nature, that it starts to self-regulate and take care of itself,” explains founder Raina McDonald.

For example, every year the workers feed and transplant nectar-rich supportive habitat plants for pollinators such as bees.

McDonald came up with the idea for this unique Pictou County project to raise awareness about food insecurity, and to teach people how to grow their own food sustainably.

She partnered with SchoolsPlus worker Megan Moore and with the help of countless volunteers, the Scotsburn Community Food Forest was born. Eventually, the plants will be also used for medicine.

The term “food forest” stems from the permaculture (“permanent agriculture”) movement and has been around since at least the 1970s. The concept itself is deeply rooted in Indigenous culture, and fittingly, the Pictou Landing First Nations school that has already visited the food forest hopes to share knowledge of native plants on return trips. Students there could also be a great help with signage, McDonald adds.

She explains that although the food forest is ever-changing, it’s permanent in that the soil is not dug up year after year to restart the following season. Workers continually add compost and mulch so that they’re taking care of the Earth while simultaneously growing fruits and vegetables from it.

Measuring just 30 metres by 11 metres (100 feet by 35 feet), this tiny patch of land is not meant to sustain a large population. It’s more of a demo site to show other communities the different ways to grow and to share some permaculture principles.

Last fall, for instance, workers ran a Preserving Harvest class. The focus? Creating budget-friendly ways of eating locally year-round. With the staggering cost of groceries these days, it’s no surprise the class was a hit. Attendees learned how to can, ferment and make bone broth, among other things.

The food forest also hosts visiting experts and conducts herb and propagating workshops. There are community growing experiments, work parties and tool swaps.

Setting up directly beside Scotsburn Elementary School also spawned some meaningful relationships.

Already a Monarch Waystation — that is, a stopping point for the orange-and-black endangered butterfly — the school was eager to jump on board with the exciting project about to unfold next door.

Students helped design and build the harvest share stand, and in 2020, they started milkweed seedlings (essential for the monarchs’ survival) in their classroom. They later transplanted them into the food forest.

When the COVID lockdown hit, the school didn’t miss a beat. Students took their seedlings home, and every teacher incorporated growing milkweed plants into their online learning. Even after classes resumed, they maintained this collective thread.

Milkweed plants don’t flower until the second year and when these ones bloomed, they did so magnificently — attracting a host of monarchs.

“That year, they actually got to see some of the butterflies come,” Principal Kim Tetreault remembers. “That was pretty powerful for them.”

McDonald was equally thrilled to see students begin to make real-world connections.

“Some of them would have been in Primary when that happened, and it’s five years later and they’re in their final year in that school, and they are empowered to feel like they are a change agent. They planted that seed and they helped that grow, and on and on.” Students are used to grabbing a handful of green beans from the school cafeteria that they started from scratch, says Tetreault. But by fall, they may be able to harvest their own tomatoes to make salsa, or even bring this knowledge home and start a garden of their own.

For all of its success, however, the food forest does face challenges.

Funding is readily available to purchase trees and launch startups, but there’s not much for operational costs and coordination fees. McDonald has had to piece together numerous smaller grants over the years as she runs the grassroots, volunteer-based project. She is always on the lookout for more partners.

She advises others interested in replicating the Scotsburn Community Food Forest’s success in another area to start small, assess the interest level and assemble a core group of people who are willing to invest their time and take action together. And don’t forget to constantly gauge the community for feedback.

To learn more about how you can start a similar project in your community reach out to Raina McDonald or volunteer champion Gord Galvin through the website or the Scotsburn Community Food Forest Facebook page.

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